On a remote plateau in the mountains of south-central France, in December 1940, a Jewish woman who had fled Nazi Germany and who had reached Le Chambon-sur-Lignon knocked on the door of the home of the village’s pastor, André Trocmé. She sought shelter and hoped that the pastor and his wife, Magda, would understand her plight. The pastor and his wife took in the woman, and the next day, helped the woman through a growing network of likeminded residents who were defying the Vichy and Nazi governments by assisting Jews and others who came to them for help.
France had capitulated to Nazi Germany in a few short weeks, and Germany retained control over the northern and western parts of the country. The collaborating French government, located in Vichy, administered the southern zone, where Le Chambon was located. From the earliest days of the German occupation in France in June 1940, residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the surrounding villages assisted and helped save the lives of thousands of Jews.
The arrival of Jewish refugees on the Plateau was not the first time that the residents of this rural area were called upon to given assistance to others. Throughout history, the area had been a place of refuge for those oppressed due to their religious or political affiliation. Huguenots (French Protestants) had fled to the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to escape persecution by the Catholic majority, and the tradition of asylum granted to them was passed on by their descendants. When Jewish refugees reached Le Chambon and the surrounding villages, they found a population that understood that the intensifying persecution of the Jews – though legitimized by the collaborating Vichy government – was fundamentally wrong. The area also welcomed political refugees from Spain, Germany and other parts of Europe.
Jews who came to Le Chambon and other villages seeking help were never turned away, and as more and more refugees arrived on the Plateau, the population developed an underground, informal network to hide people in homes, schools, guesthouses, and farms. Pastors like André Trocmé, and other community leaders such as Pastor Edouard Theis and the school headmaster Roger Darcissac, led the rescue efforts by helping Jews secure false identity papers, connecting them to those who would shelter them, and inspiring others to participate in the effort. The work of the village pastors to help the Jews was assisted by various French and international organizations, such as the Jewish Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE, Children’s Relief Organization), the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) and the YMCA, which brought Jews to the region and helped place them with sympathetic families.
Yet the courage shown by the pastors and residents did not go unnoticed by Vichy or the German occupiers. In the summer of 1942, during the intensification of the deportation of Jews from France, French police descended on Le Chambon to round up Jews rumored to be in hiding there. In response, the residents worked to spirit Jews out of the villages and send them to outlying farms. Armed with false identity papers, many made the harrowing trek over the Swiss border to neutral territory. In February 1943, Pastors Theis and Trocmé and Roger Darcissac were arrested and sent to a French internment camp, from which they were later released. However, even this crackdown did not stifle the actions of the people of the Plateau, who continued to help Jews until the end of the war. By the time France was liberated in September 1944, the residents of Le Chambon and the surrounding villages had sheltered several thousand people, including more than 3,000 Jews.
In discussing the rescue of Jews in and around Le Chambon with your students, you might explore the motivations of the residents to save Jews during the Holocaust. How were the people of Le Chambon and other villages able to continue their courageous actions, even in the face of increased police and other official presence? What role did community leaders, such as the pastors and headmaster, play in inspiring and encouraging their activities? In what ways did religion and a tradition of assistance provide a framework for rescue efforts during the Holocaust?